Sand Creek Environmental Restoration Project
The Sand Creek Environmental Restoration Project is a multifaceted project that provides environmental restoration, flood control, and recreation benefits for the Sand Creek Watershed area in Saunders County.
Lake Wanahoo, the keystone of the project, takes its name from Wanahoo Park, a popular recreation area that operated in the Wahoo area through the mid-1960s (see pictures and a history of Wanahoo Park here).
Lake Wanahoo is located one mile north of Wahoo, just west of the Highway 109/77 junction. The dam was completed in 2010, impounding a 662-acre lake (approximately seven times as large as nearby Czechland Lake at Prague, and just slightly smaller than Pawnee Lake near Emerald).
The Lake Wanahoo State Recreation Area, managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, opened to the public in April 2012, offering fishing, hunting, camping, picnicking, day use, no-wake boating, and more.
The Lake Wanahoo/Sand Creek Project began in the early '90s as an effort to control severe flood problems on Sand and Wahoo creeks. Efforts to find solutions for the flood problems date back to at least the mid-1960s, and numerous reports and studies since then have confirmed the need for flood control in the area. However, little progress was made until 1990, when Wahoo and Saunders County approached the Lower Platte North NRD about the possibility of constructing a large reservoir just north of Wahoo.
After preliminary studies indicated that the idea held promise, the project partners commissioned a more detailed feasibility study in 1996. That study, completed in June 1997, reaffirmed the merits of the plan and recommended that the project go forward.
As the project progressed, it evolved into a broader-based watershed project focused on environmental restoration, with flood control and recreation as added benefits.
Environmental restoration is the primary benefit of the Sand Creek Project. A large wetlands area at the north end of Lake Wanahoo, along with wetland areas around the seven upstream structures, will help mitigate wetland losses that have occurred in the Todd Valley over the years. The project will also create new wildlife habitat, restore native grassland and hardwood forest areas, and improve water quality in the watershed.
Flood control is another benefit of the Lake Wanahoo/Sand Creek Project. The project should reduce flood damages in the Wahoo Creek watershed by at least 23 percent and help protect Wahoo, Ithaca, Ashland and surrounding areas. Estimated annual savings from this flood protection are approximately $250,000.
Recreation is also a benefit of Lake Wanahoo. The 662-acre lake and 1,777-acre recreation area is managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and is the largest body of water to open for public use in eastern Nebraska in at least two decades.
Seven smaller dams are being built upstream on Sand and Duck Creeks. Along with large wetlands at the north end of Lake Wanahoo, they will help trap sediment and nutrients before they reach the lake, preserving the water quality, creating wetlands, and extending the life of the lake. Funding for these projects is being provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
The estimated total cost to construct the Lake Wanahoo/Sand Creek Project is $32.5 million. The major funding sources include $10.5 million of federal funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, $12.5 million from the Nebraska Resource Development fund (administered by Nebraska Department of Natural Resources), $3.5 million from Nebraska Department of Roads, $1.4 from Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and $1.28 from the Nebraska Environmental Trust with the remainder coming from the local partnership (the city of Wahoo, Saunders County, and the Lower Platte North NRD) .
Land rights acquisition for Lake Wanahoo was completed in summer 2000. In the Water Resources Development Act passed later that year, the project was given "conditional approval" by the Corps of Engineers, which required additional studies and reports. Final approval was granted in January 2003, and the Project Cooperative Agreement was signed in April 2004.
Work began on fishery structures in summer 2004. Construction on the wetlands phase of the Lake Wanahoo site (north of the lake) was completed in fall 2008. Work on a breakwater structure and the Lake Wanahoo dam embankment began in fall 2008 and was completed in 2009. Construction of the dam was finished in August 2010. Recreation facilities and five of the planned upstream dams were constructed in 2011-2012, and the Lake Wanahoo State Recreation Area opened to the public in April 2012. Completion of the two remaining upstream dams is planned for later in 2013.